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‘Finis’ for the Sri Lankan Cinema?

It is a tale befitting a classic cinematic tragedy, replete with many a villain.

A once beautiful damsel is dying. There have been a veritable army of villains who have bloodied their hands in contributing to her present distress. Those responsible for her do not seem to have any clue as to what treatment is necessary, circling around her, tut tuting gravely about what is to be done.

That maiden is the Sri Lankan cinema.

All her facets- exhibition, distribution, import and production, are in shambles. She is gravely ill, deserted by her many admirers. Once upon a time, she had them in plenty; they flocked to the cinemas in the days gone by. As she seems to breathe her last there is no hero who is riding to her rescue. Alas, the one who is approaching is yet another baddie set to ravish her, yet again. This time, they will surely finish her off; mercifully and ironically she will endure no more. The ‘villain’ this time is the Local government authorities who are seeking to activate an archaic tax which will increase ticket prices by 25% and drive away the few admirers visiting the cinemas. That, surely, will be ‘finis’ for the Sri Lankan cinema.

To get a perspective, a flash back: once she was the most sought after maiden in town. In 1972, as many as 30 million tickets were purchased annually. Then came along the State Film Corporation which set in motion multi-faceted set of development measures, setting apart film import and distribution for itself and harnessing the private sector to take care of exhibition and production. The combined result of those measures was that the foreign film domination of 80% screentime, gave way to a 58% screen time for domestic films. Audiences, who had been subjected to "forced choice," predominantly of Tamil and Hindi, began to flock to cinemas in their millions when the choice was made available to them. The development measures and their success were unprecedented and have not been equaled anywhere in the world. In just seven years, yearly admission climbed from 30 million to an astounding 74.4 million by 1979 - the best evidence that the audiences were denied the choice by the very cinema moguls who claimed to know that demand and how to cater to it.

Enter Anton Wicremasinghe as CEO of the NFC. From 1979 he continued for 10 years as the longest serving Chairman of the NFC. A bosom buddy of President J.R Jayewardene, (who was also the minister in charge of the NFC), he was given a free rein to do as he pleased and that he did in good measure, triggering the start of the present devastation: he allowed unlimited credit from public funds for the unfettered production of films by "anyone" (yes! by anyone!) in the name of the open economy, while denying that choice to cinema owners. They were forced to show each and every film so produced.

By 1985 a massive glut of films awaiting screening built up alongside the films being sent to the cinemas- films few wanted to see. A five year queue of some 100 films lay in wait for their turn while more were being produced!!! Audiences protested by staying away; attendance began to fall uncontrollably.

Alarmed and embarrassed by the decline of a once prospering industry, President Jayewardene set about looking for a scapegoat and found one in new villain about town, television. In 1983 he set up a Presidential Committee of Inquiry [PCI] to evaluate just that: to what extent was television responsible for the decline of film? With the outcome pre-determined for it, the PCI found that the culprit was television. The film, it intoned, was doomed by television and had no chance of survival.

Even as it was predicting the downfall of film because of television, the PCI also recommended 85 measures to resurrect the industry! The PCI also may have misled Wicremasinghe in to believing that it was television, not him who was to blame. It was a convenient white wash to get the J.R. Jayewardene government off the hook.

The finding of the PCI was false and had no grounding on fact. It merely transposed the fact that television and decline of film began in 1980.

It was flawed because ITN television transmission which began in 1979 within a 15 mile radius of Colombo with just 2,500 television sets could not have been responsible for the decline of film attendance countrywide.

The attendance decline was due to the fact that the NFC had run out of Tamil films to show: that accounted for the 10 million decline for Tamil films, which alone registered a drop in 1980, mainly in Jaffna, east and the central region not reached by ITN. The PCI was aware of this- it quoted the statistics while ignoring it!

Having identified ‘television’ as the fiend and passing an almost ex-cathedra judgment of the future, PCI set up Wicremasinghe to do nothing. By then, 1982, it was too late: attendances had already fallen to 51.9 million a year when Rupavahini went nationwide.

With the cover provided by PCI findings, Wicremasinghe blundered along, presiding over the continuing film decline till his retirement in 1989. He left a damning legacy of a 45 million a year decline in audiences and of the number of cinemas to 250 (from the 365 in 1979) in addition to a bankrupt NFC.

Wicremasinghe's 10 year tenure was so devastating that none of his successors could turn around the cinema. Just as much as he did not have any comprehension of the issues to deal with the challenges, his sucessors did not have any idea or policy either. Some 14 successors, each having an average of one and half years in office, took turns at misreading the fall in attendances with all kinds sporadic, ad hoc measures, the key intervention being to increase the price of tickets in the face of the decline!

NFC became the problem. It put aside the public good it was created to pursue, of a wider choice of films, distributed to every nook and corner of the country: it was an archetypal case of political wheeling and dealing, meddling, gross incompetence, haplessness and irresponsible squandering of opportunity in a government enterprise.

By 2000, fed up with the mess that the NFC had made, the private sector film moguls led by Ceylon Theaters mounted an enormous lobby, harnessing President Chandrika Kumaranatunge’s closest favorites to press for privatization of film import and distribution. There was much espousal about the private sector ‘answer’ to the NFC failure.

In 1995 she had railed against the Amabalavanar Committee recommendations of partial liberalization of import vowing never to give up the NFC monopoly of film import and distribution. But in 2001, in a typical U-turn she has gained notoriety for, she reneged on her former assurance and she gifted, via circulars, film import and distribution to a hastily assembled private sector film distribution foursome, finishing off the NFC monopoly. No competitive tenders were issued; no business plans were called for; no fees were charged; the film dues from the cinemas were not recovered (totaling some Rs. 70 million, and now running to some Rs. 200 million with interest on arrears); the legality of "privatization by circulars" was never ascertained and even now, is in doubt. The measure of privatization were touted and presented to the film industry representatives by two of Ms. Kumaranatunge’s closest cronies at a meeting held at the People Bank auditorium. They who took turns to present, with frivolous joviality, what were touted the privatization as ground-breaking measures to the film industry. Those measures were to sink the industry further into a morass and lead to the present disastrous outcome. Many other promises were made but never kept.

In the tradition of a classic cinematic tragedy she throttled the NFC, the ‘child’ of her mother Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike, rendering the NFC into a toothless, powerless hermaphrodite. She had believed the assurances given to her by the film private sector lobby, of a coming resurrection of the cinema in Sri Lanka once the hated NFC was neutered.

The reverse was to be the case.

Once in the saddle, the film private sector distributors did almost nothing except for EAP who improved cinemas. Beyond that there was no display of the vaunted private sector initiative: no better films; no superior marketing; no attempts to make cinema going value for money; no attempts at reducing costs. In a curious display of private sector ‘initiative,’ admission fees were increased repeatedly at a time of declining demand to an average of Rs. 200 per seat! As cinemagoers deserted in droves cinema halls became cheap love hotel heavens for young lovers.

Today, in a damning but a classic case of a total failure of vaunted private sector initiative, yearly attendance has declined from 17 million in 2001, when the privatization occurred, to a mere 7.6 million in 2007- this at a time when the population had risen to 22 million. The number of cinemas has dropped to 148, from the 179 in 2001 (and the 365 in 1979).

Though in petition after petition to Ms. Kumaranatunge, Ceylon Theaters heralded the private sector’s superior capability in lobbying for privatization, the distribution company it partnered, CEL, could not turn around the decline in attendance. It watched haplessly and helplessly as its own share of yearly attendances dropped from 2.8 million in 2002 to a mere 1.2 million in 2007. The promises to turn around the film sector had vanished as they turned to ceramics and supermarkets. They seemed to have had the last laugh at the expense of President Kumaratunga and her favorites who had assisted so enthusiastically in the delivery of the privatization bequest.

Flash forward to the villain who is riding to the damsel in distress, but alas to vanquish, not save. The Local Government authorities are reportedly seeking to increase the Entertainment Tax to 25% of the ticket price on top of the municipal rates it charges a cinema, for a service it no longer renders, in a move akin to extracting blood from a dying patient.

Anton Wicremasinghe condemned the Sri Lankan cinema to a journey of decline from 74.4 million admissions to 7.6 million: the 25% ‘tax’ will surely be the final nail in the coffin.

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